Across an expansive body of work that’s included everything from grungy exploitation films, vampire movies and cop flicks to starry gangster epics, edgy introspective dramas and frisky documentaries, Abel Ferrara has always strived to reinvent himself, while evolving as a prolific and incomparably intense film artist.
Now pushing 70, the director has never once slowed down. His latest fiction film, the gonzo, magical realist existential epic Siberia (which debuted earlier this year at the Berlinale), marks his second fiction feature collaboration in 2 years with regular star, friend and apparent muse Willem Dafoe. It presents another truly unique and dizzying venture into common thematic territory. Here he confronts familiar issues of sexuality, guilt and personal redemption with typical candour and sophistication, but in a bizarre narrative and universe that feel entirely fresh and new in the director’s filmography.
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At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ferrara presented Tommaso (2019), a strange, melancholic and typically punkish film in which Dafoe played a film director and recovering addict living out a peaceful, simple life in Rome with his wife and small child (played by Ferrara’s own partner Cristina Chiriac and daughter Anna Ferrara).
It was not the first time Dafoe has played an artist for Ferrara, having begun this decade of creative partnership playing a painter in the spiritedly gloomy end-of-the-world drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), and then played the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini with aplomb in lively quasi-biopic Pasolini (2014). But it was the first time Dafoe had seemed so nakedly an extension of Ferrara, both as an autobiographical stand in – acting out domestic scenes in Ferrara’s own apartment and with his family – and as an expression of his psyche on screen in a new phase of directly self-examining work.
Combining loose, observational sequences of Tommaso rehearsing with actors, learning Italian, meditating, attending AA meetings and bonding with his family, the film playfully explored levels of reality, artifice and meta-fiction, Ferrara self-consciously riffing on his life in Rome, his own struggles with addiction and apparent new tradition of casting Dafoe as great film directors.
In later sections, Tommaso shifted gears from slice of life into more dramatic territory as the character became obsessed with his wife’s suspected infidelity. The film’s violent, if enigmatic, conclusion suggests levels of filmic fantasy and lived reality clashing up against one another, filtered through a prism of masculine jealousy, inadequacy and rage obviously familiar from Ferrara’s past work.
This schism finds more expansive and sustained exploration in Siberia, which marks a new entry into a realm of unreality in which his recent films’ bubbling subconscious, their preoccupation with repressed male rage and insecurity, find expression in a totally abstracted, elaborately beautiful and fantastical mise-en-scène.
Unlike the limited locations, uncanny verisimilitude and comparative realism of Tommaso, Siberia plays out across various continents and planes of fantasy, and features everything from surreal encounters set against icy tundra, arid desert and lush woodland to loose and intimate exchanges and frank sex scenes between lovers.
From the beginning, however, it shares some of the same preoccupations as Tommaso. We are first presented with Clint (Dafoe) as he mans a remote bar on a mountainside, catering to various eccentric clientele. An escapee from a complex, troubled life back at home – hinted at in the film’s oblique flashbacks – Clint has set himself up in pure isolation, away from any of the domestic strife, work hang-ups or personal demons that plagued a character like Tommaso.
An Inuit traveller stops in for a drink, another man shows up to play with the slot machine. But within moments the film’s strange, disorientating editing and expressionistic cinematography have suggested that all is not as it seems. There is apparently a second Clint, a twin who also works at the bar who may be imaginary, taking care of the huskies caged outside. A sudden bear attack happens and is quickly forgotten. A heavily pregnant Russian woman and her mother arrive, encouraging Clint to first kiss the belly and then have sex with the pregnant woman. The narrative moves with a perverse dream logic.
There’s something almost satirically over-determined about these early sequences, combining as they do an austere visual style and weightily symbolic narrative beats that feel familiar from the deeply serious and deliberate work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr or Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The images and scenarios resound somehow with familiarity and a sense of import, but they collide with a self-conscious sense of tongue-in-cheek comedy and randomness in their placement and seeming lack of narrative consequence.
This disarming tonal sensation continues as Clint consults with a reflection of himself in an underground cave, a sunglasses-wearing Dafoe oracle that reproaches him for his selfishness, solipsism and hermetic life. He then embarks on a surreal journey through various landscapes, nightmare scenarios, confrontations with literal and figurative father figures and athletic sexual encounters with various women. All of these vignettes clash and contradict one another across the film’s bracingly short runtime, culminating in an aquatic encounter that feels somehow both deep and moving and completely hilarious at the same time.
Surely we are to take all these magical realist flourishes and mordant introspection with a pinch of salt? Can and should a film this morbid and self-serious feel as light, playful and humorous as it does, even as it confronts us with personal pain, suffering and violence? Thankfully, Ferrara leaves the question unanswered.
The film’s commitment to contradiction and ambiguity is perhaps best illustrated by a scene in which Dafoe is confronted with the pregnant woman again, this time transformed into a gigantic, monstrous and bleeding hag who appears to have recently birthed a horse’s head. Rather than commit to the horror, humour or potential misogyny of this transformation, Ferrara instead has Clint huddle close to the woman, fully embracing her and with tenderness. It’s a perversely moving sequence in a film that’s as alive to the contradictions of lived experience and thought as it is to the beauty of cinematic abstraction, symbolism and absurdity.
For a filmmaker to be as excited about the possibilities of cinematic expression in his 70s is about as invigorating as anything to be found in the LFF line-up.